Tag Archives: Catalan

Catalonia and the Splintering of Europe

Secession is something of a dirty word in these parts.

My readers know that the United States dealt rather dramatically and thoroughly with the question of secession during the Civil War in the 19th century, meaning that the issue of whether a country could break apart is something which does not often cross our minds on this side of the Atlantic.  True, our media has done a great deal of reporting on the occupation of Crimea by Russia, but mainly because that action raises a number of strategic concerns for this country.  Somewhat less attention has been paid to the question of independence for Scotland, although it is reported on from time to time for the two-fold reason that the people there speak English, and Americans are fascinated by just about anything that goes on in Britain.

However in other parts of Europe, the possibility of break-up is being actively considered, yet remains outside the common knowledge of most Americans.  Consider the recent referendum in Venice for example, on whether to leave Italy and become an independent republic again, as it was before Italian unification in the 19th century.  The story received scant attention on these shores, but the referendum passed with a staggering 89% of the vote, accompanied by a huge turn-out: of the 3.7 million eligible voters, approximately 2.4 million voters took part, and of those over 2.1 million people voted in favor of declaring independence from Italy. Another example is the question of independence for Catalonia, an issue which is now starting to come to a head, but which is not being analyzed very much in American news outlets either.

As the reader may know, if he is a regular visitor to these pages, Catalonia is the northeastern region of Spain along the Mediterranean, of which Barcelona is the capital.  The Catalan people have their own separate language, flag, and culture, distinct from the rest of Spain, a fact which, at various points over the past few centuries, has caused them to try to gain independence.  Economically speaking, Catalonia is one of the most powerful of Spain’s 17 component regions, producing between 1/4 and 1/5 of the entire output of the Spanish national economy, depending on whose figures you believe.

Because of this, Catalan yearning for international cultural recognition has, in recent years, been joined with something resembling economic libertarianism.  The perception, rightly or wrongly, among the Catalans that they are paying far more into the central Spanish economy than they are getting out of it, has fostered a widespread call for less centralized control by Madrid.  This development of a greater desire for self-determination based on economic policy, not just cultural preservation, has appealed to a broad swath of Catalan voters, and led to an upcoming referendum which could lead to Catalonia declaring independence from Spain…or maybe not.

Back in January of 2013, the Catalan Parliament adopted a resolution that Catalonia had a right to hold a vote on whether to declare independence from Spain, as a sovereign legal and political entity.  This was temporarily suspended by the Spanish Constitutional Court in Madrid in May 2013, pending judicial ruling on the matter.  The resolution was rejected yesterday by the court, declaring that “within the framework of the constitution, a region cannot unilaterally convoke a referendum on self-determination to decide on its integration with Spain.”

While this was making its way through the legal system last year, the major Catalan political parties did not wait to see what Madrid would decide.  In December 2013, the Catalan government announced that a referendum would be held on November 9, 2014, in which two questions would be placed before the electorate.  First, voters would be asked whether they wanted to declare Catalonia a state; if so, the voters would then be asked whether that state should be independent of Spain.  The central government in Madrid has already declared that any such vote would be illegal under the Spanish Constitution, a position strengthened by yesterday’s court ruling.

Keep in mind, there are two very important differences with respect to the way the Scottish and the Catalan independence referenda are proceeding.  In the case of Scotland, the vote will only ask one question: whether Scotland should be an independent country.  In Catalonia, the two-part question means that, in theory, a majority of voters could declare that Catalonia is a state, rather than simply a province or a region, and yet those voters could also decide that they do not want to be independent of Spain.  Additionally, while the Scottish vote is taking place with the blessing – if not the approval – of the British government, the Catalan vote, if it happens at all, clearly will have no such approval nor be recognized, whatever the outcome.

Yet interestingly enough, Tuesday’s ruling may not prove to be a defeat for the Catalan referendum after all.  Not only was this court result expected, but it may actually galvanize Catalan voters to go ahead with their vote anyway, in defiance of Madrid.  If it does, Catalonia may be betting on the fact that the current Prime Minister of Spain, Mariano Rajoy, and the conservative Partido Popular which he heads, are now unpopular.  The Spanish economy remains something of a basket case, with around 26% of Spaniards still unemployed, and economic growth this year predicted to be only around 1.2%, according to figures released today by the Bank of Spain.

Given that Spain has been in the economic doldrums for several years, this growth rate is actually comparatively good news, but it is not winning Sr. Rajoy or his party many votes.  Recent polls suggest that in the upcoming EU Parliamentary elections in May, the Partido Popular is likely to lose to the Socialists and other leftist groups.  And since national elections must take place in Spain in 2015, Catalonia may be betting that Sr. Rajoy will not want to risk being seen ordering the police or armed forces to arrest and prosecute those trying to organize the referendum.

Of course, if Catalonia decides that it is a state within a state, this may prove almost more confusing within Spain’s patchwork system of government than if it simply declared independence.  Unlike the United States or Germany, Spain does not have a federal system of government, with a clear division of powers between the various state governments and the national government.  Rather, individual relationships were negotiated between the central government in Madrid, and the component regions of the country, which over the years have occasionally been re-visited and renegotiated.

Thus, even if full-on independence does not pass in Catalonia, Spain could be looking at a major constitutional crisis.  Other wealthy, culturally and linguistically separatist regions in the north of Spain, such as the Basques or Galicia, could decide that they, too, want to hold such referenda.  Some might want to stay within Spain; others might go for full-on independence.  The end result could be an evisceration of the Spanish Constitution, something which Madrid absolutely does not want.

In a wider European context, Brussels is clearly concerned about what the fracturing of nation-states means for the future of the European Union.  Paradoxically, it is the greater degree of self-determination brought about by membership in the EU which has helped to bring about these resurgent independence movements, but there is no guarantee that a newly independent Catalonia, Venice, or Scotland would be permitted to join the EU.  Their “parent” states could indefinitely prevent their accession, for example.  These would not be friendly annulments, as occurred in the breakup of Czechoslovakia, nor bloody, drawn-out divorces, as occurred in Yugoslavia, but something altogether new, which Brussels will have a very difficult time dealing with.

Stay tuned.

Pro-Independence Rally in Downtown Barcelona September 11, 2012

Pro-Independence Rally in Downtown Barcelona
September 11, 2012

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Escolania of Montserrat Gives Magnificent Performance in DC

To a packed house and rapturous applause, the Escolania – the boys’ choir from the Benedictine Abbey of Montserrat in Catalonia – gave a glorious concert yesterday afternoon at the Music Center at Strathmore here in the DC area, as the final stop on their first tour of the United States.  In a two-part program the choristers, whose group was founded at the Abbey over 800 years ago, led by Choirmaster Bernat Vivancos, performed music composed in honor of Our Lady of Montserrat over the past several centuries, followed by a selection of popular Catalan folk songs.  While the setting may have been secular, the combination of sacred and traditional song, on a gray day threatening with snow, clearly touched the hearts and souls of the audience, leading to multiple standing ovations  and much cheering.

In attendance were His Excellency the Spanish Ambassador to the United States, Ramón Gil-Casares; the widow of legendary Catalan cellist and composer Pau (Pablo) Casals, Marta Casals Istomin; several representatives from the Catalan government; and monks from Montserrat Abbey.  Fortunately for those not familiar with the music, some of which was in Latin and some of which was in Catalan, the program provided thorough translations  for the audience.  However it was the music itself, and the vocal dexterity of the singers, which seemed to make a profound impression even on those who did not understand the words that the boys were singing.

In an unusual arrangement that was bookended at the conclusion of the program, Choirmaster Vivancos began the concert with the 50 choir boys lined up in a single, C-shaped row, wrapping around the three back walls of the stage. Intoning Gregorian chant, they set a prayerful and contemplative mood for the audience.  Not only did this produce a remarkable acoustic effect, enveloping the audience in sound, but it previewed the fact that this was not simply going to be watching a group of singers standing motionless on risers. For each piece, there was a shift in the arrangement of the choristers, depending on the auditory effect which Sr. Vivancos was trying to achieve; at one point for example, four of the boys went up into the balcony overlooking the stage, to sing in responsory with the bulk of the choir down below.

Similarly, in pieces which contained a solo or duet, the singer or singers in question would be brought to the front of the stage, perform their part of the piece, and then return to their brethren in the choir. Perhaps one of the most charming aspects of this was at the conclusion of each composition, when the lad(s) in question would be directed to step to the front and take a bow: they did so smiling widely from gratitude but at the same time charmingly blushing from embarrassment.  It was touching to see how they would look over periodically to Sr. Vivancos as they took their bows, making sure that he was pleased, but one also suspects wondering if they could get the signal to go back to their friends and stop being the center of attention.

While the first half of the program contained sacred music in a wealth of different styles from the 13th through the 20th centuries, all originally composed for the Escolania, the second half consisted of a number of folk songs from Catalonia, some of which were given very unusual arrangements.  The popular “Muntanyes de Canigó” for example, which was performed with an undercurrent of dirge-like humming, on the surface seems to be a longing for a visit to the mountains and sorrow over the death of a nightingale.  Yet the tune is in fact an allegory of how these mountains were ceded to France in the 17th century, after the Catalans unsuccessfully tried to regain their independence; the buzzing sound beneath the singing seemed to recognize this stirring.  This was followed by a folk tune with a similar theme, “El Rossinyol”, which is in fact a pun on the fact that the word means “nightingale” in Catalan, but was also the name given to this lost part of Catalonia.

Another unusual touch was the performance of the medieval carol “El Cant dels Ocells” or “Song of the Birds”, which has become associated over time with Catalans who went into exile after the Spanish Civil War.  Pau Casals, who composed and arranged many pieces for the Escolania during his long career, would often end his own performances with this piece.  At yesterday’s performance, the smallest choirboy singing a lovely high soprano down front, and his brother choristers arranged around the three sides of the back stage, were periodically joined by the sound of chirping bird flutes that would bounce back and forth and echo into the audience.  It gave a real sense of songbirds in flight, and an unexpected contrast to the mournful, but powerful melody of the carol.

Before the intermission, as the Escolania was heading offstage for their break, an elderly Catalan lady in the audience stood up and called out, in mixed Catalan and English, “Rosa d’Abril [Rose of April]! Please!” These are the first words of the “Virolai”, the 19th century hymn to Our Lady of Montserrat, recalling that her Feast Day falls on April 26th.  Thr hymn encouraged Catalans both religious and secular to hold on to hope, and became even more popular during the Franco regime, when Catalan language and culture was almost universally banned in a – fortunately unsuccessful – push to stamp it out.  Sr. Vivancos did not disappoint, and the final encore involved the Escolania singing this beautiful piece while the audience was on its feet, with the Catalans in the audience singing along, just as occurs when it is performed at the Abbey of Montserrat.

It was a real privilege for this scrivener to be able to attend the concert, particularly since I have not been able to get back to Barcelona for a couple of years now. I offer my sincere thanks to the Delegation of the Catalan Government to the United States for inviting me to participate.  Yet most of all, my thanks to the Escolania, Bernat Vivancos, and the monks at the Abbey of Montserrat, for bringing some of the sounds of Catalonia here to America, and in such a magnificent way.


The Escolania de Montserrat with some of the dignitaries in attendance,
following yesterday’s concert at the Music Center at Strathmore


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Legendary Catalan Boys’ Choir from Montserrat Abbey Comes to DC March 16th

On Sunday March 16th at 3:00 pm, at the Music Center at Strathmore, Washington-area residents and visitors will be able to enjoy a concert by one of the oldest boys’ choirs in Europe, the Escolania de Montserrat.

Founded in the 13th century at the mountaintop Benedictine Abbey of Our Lady of Montserrat outside of Barcelona, the Escolania consists of over 50 boys, aged 9-14, who sing soprano or alto.  After a rigorous selection process, each chorister is chosen to live and attend school at the Abbey, study music, play in the orchestra, and sing for pilgrims at Mass and daily prayers.  The Escolania has performed and recorded with many luminaries of the classical music world, including Mstislav Rostropovich, Sir Neville Marriner, and Jordi Savall, among others, and they have toured a number of countries.

For Catalans (or half-Catalans like myself), the Escolania is one of those institutions that speak of ancient tradition in Catalonia: its deep love of music in general but of singing in particular, which is native to all Catalans.  Just as Our Lady of Montserrat is the patroness of Catalonia, so too these boys, who serve God by singing His praises at the Abbey, are collectively the voices of the children of Catalonia.  At the same time, as is the case with all great artists, their outreach goes well-beyond the land that they come from.  They remind the listener of the virtues of peace, love, and hope, in an age which so desperately needs all three in far greater measure.

This is the choir’s first tour of the United States, beginning in New York at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Midtown Manhattan on March 13th, followed by their performance here in the DC area on March 16th at 3:00 pm at Strathmore.  The concert will last just under two hours, with an intermission. Tickets range from $25.00-$35.00, and can be purchased directly from the Strathmore website.  I hope to see many of you there!

For a sample of the superb voices that make up the choir, check out the video below.  This is a truly unique, hauntingly beautiful adaptation of the famous Schubert “Ave Maria”, arranged in a minor key by the Escolania’s present Choirmaster, Bernat Vivancos.  It features the choristers themselves in concert, as well as scenes of the magnificent Montserrat Abbey:


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Explaining the Google Doodle: Gaudí’s 161st Birthday

If you dropped by Google this morning you’ll have noticed that today’s Google Doodle celebrates the 161st birthday of the greatest of all Catalan architects, Antoni Gaudí i Cornet (1852-1926):


As he lived a very long, productive life, with a significant output of unique designs for both buildings and decorative art, a single blog post would not be sufficient for me to share all of the fascinating stories one could tell of this talented, deeply Catholic and proudly Catalan figure.  Indeed, his cause for sainthood is presently being considered by the Church, and there are volumes and volumes of material on his life which are being poured over in the Vatican even as I write this.

I thought it might be helpful for those unfamiliar with Gaudí’s work to learn a little bit about the elements of the Google Doodle itself, for your own further research and reading.  From left to right, the illustrations in the doodle represent the entrance to the Park Güell; the interior courtyard of the Casa Milà, more colloquially known as “La Pedrera”; part of tower decoration on the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia; one of the roof ventilators on the roof of La Pedrera; one of the roof ventilators from the Casa Batllo; and another roof ventilator from La Pedrera.  All of these structures are located in the city of Barcelona, as indeed nearly all of the master’s work is as well.  Let’s take each of these in turn, with an accompanying photograph so you can see where Google’s illustrator got his ideas.

The Park Güell was an urban development project which Gaudí undertook at the behest of his greatest patron, Count Eusebi Güell, who liked the then-new English concept of creating planned communities clustered around a common area containing a marketplace, gardens, and other amenities.  Although the project was never fully realized, it is now a public park with sweeping views of the city, and features some highly influential examples of Gaudí’s designs.  One element in particular, his serpentine bench covered in broken tiles, dishes, and glass, a technique known as “trencadis”, is still copied today by furniture designers, for example.


The next section of the Google Doodle, the interior courtyard of the Casa Milà, shows an apartment building on the Passeig de Gràcia, Barcelona’s most fashionable street, designed by Gaudí for a wealthy widow.  The exterior of the building, with its curved walls and balconies which resemble dried seaweed, was ridiculed at the time for looking like an abandoned stone quarry or “pedrera”, and the name stuck.  There was originally supposed to be a giant bronze statue of Our Lady of the Rosary at the apex of the building, and a close observer will see the “Ave Maria” carved into the pinnacle where the sculpture was supposed to be placed, but for various reasons this was never completed.  The interior courtyard was a remarkable innovation for the period, creating an open atrium space to allow light and fresh air to penetrate into the interior of the structure, rather than taking up the entire footprint of the lot.


The Google Doodle then shows a detail from the Basilica of the Holy Family, or “Sagrada Familia”, which was the great project of the last part of Gaudí’s life.  It was dedicated by Pope Benedict XVI and raised to the level of a Minor Basilica in 2009, but construction on this massive structure is still ongoing and will likely take at least another couple of decades to complete.  When it is finished it will be the tallest church in the world.  The Sagrada Familia is such a complex structure with so many different elements, styles, etc., that it would be impossible to sum all of those components up here, but the section illustrated in the Doodle is part of the decoration on one of the lower bell towers, of which there are to be twelve representing the twelve Apostles; there are higher bell towers representing the Blessed Virgin, the Four Evangelists, and Jesus Christ to come.  Each of these “Apostle towers” range between 100-115 meters (328-377 feet) tall:


The following segment of the Google Doodle takes us back to La Pedrera, this time to the roof, which features numerous chimneys and ventilation shafts with strange shapes, reminiscent of the Cubist period in Modern Art exemplified by the work of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque.  In fact, both this element and the last element of the Doodle represent just two of the many weird ventilation covers on the roof of the building, which in summer is now a popular venue for jazz concerts and cocktails:

La Pedrera Roof Barcelona

Finally, the green-tiled part of the Google Doodle which appears between the illustrations of the two ventilator shafts from La Pedrera is one of the finials from the Casa Batlló, another apartment building designed by Gaudí for a wealthy client on the Passeig de Gràcia.  This particular residential structure is probably my favorite of Gaudí’s secular works, for it is an embodiment in stone, concrete, tile, metal, and glass of the legend of St. George and the Dragon.  Among other features the facade of the building is covered in tiles shaped like reptilian scales in a rainbow of colors, with a kind of blue-green predominating, and the roof looks like the back of a dragon which has been pierced by St. George’s lance.  Whereas the roof ventilators of La Pedrera are very plain, those on the Casa Batlló are a collection of simple forms in really bright colors:


I hope these little snippets from the output of this unique architect make you want to learn more about him.  He is certainly a polemic figure in the world of architecture, and many people do not care for his work.  However if you approach these structures and designs with a combination of childlike wonder and an appreciation of how deeply Gaudí loved not only his Catholic faith, but also being a Catalan, and celebrating elements of Catalan history and Catholic culture in his work, you will at least be able to marvel at his innovations, even if it is not to your own taste.


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The Courtier Cooks…Arròs Negre (Black Rice)

Today is the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, and last night on the eve of today’s feast, in Barcelona people partied until the wee hours celebrating the birth of Christ’s cousin and forerunner.  Every year I host my own commemoration of this Catalan custom at the manse, transferring it to the nearest Saturday night in order to allow time to recover the next day of course, though with certain modifications. I have to cap the guest list very strictly to prevent overcrowding, so no long, outdoor communal dining tables like you see in different Barcelona neighborhoods on the Night of St. John.  Moreover, I imagine the District of Columbia would have a problem if I tried to make a bonfire in my back yard, so we just stick to sparklers.

One of the dishes I made for the feast is called arròs negre, “black rice”.  It once known as “paella de pobre” since it was made with just a few, very inexpensive ingredients by fishermen.  Since after posting the photograph below on social media several people asked for the recipe, I am happy to share it with you.

I realize the picture may appear ghastly.  As my youngest brother commented, it looks like an overhead shot of the armies of Mordor.  However this is a dish that is both impressive to look at and to eat.  The color is extraordinary, while the taste and aroma are not at all “fishy”, as you might expect. Rather, it is a more delicate, subtle hint of the seaside, something simultaneously sweet and briny, but very faintly so.

Fortunately, this is a wonderfully simple dish to make, and you can always put in your own variations.  Personally, I like to keep this one plain, since as with all Iberian rice dishes, the rice is the most important part.  If you concentrate on making the rice flavorful, the additions are not as important.


4 cups of seafood stock

2 cups of short-grain Bomba rice

2-3 medium to large-sized squid, cleaned and separated into tubes and tentacles

1 teaspoon smoked Spanish paprika (not Hungarian)

1 teaspoon of salt

6 sachets of cuttlefish ink

1 lemon

1.  Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees.

2.  In a 15-inch paellera, heat the seafoood stock and squid tentacles on medium-high until the liquid comes to a boil.

3.  Once the broth is boiling, use a slotted spoon or strainer to remove the squid tentacles from the stock. Discard.

4.  Pour in the Bomba rice, smoked Spanish paprika, and the contents of the 6 sachets of cuttlefish ink.  Be careful when opening the ink sachets as the contents will stain your clothes and hands.

5.  Stir everything together well to combine evenly, then stop stirring completely. From this point you will not stir or touch the rice again.

6.  Continue cooking, uncovered, for about 5 minutes.

7.  Meanwhile, cut the 2-3 squid tubes into rings, about the width of your finger.

8.  Scatter the squid rings across the surface of the rice, and push them in slightly using the back of a spoon.

9.  Now turn off the stove top, and cover the top of the paellera with foil.

10.  Carefully place the paellera in the center rack of your oven for about 8-10 minutes.  You want to check toward the end to make sure all the liquid has been absorbed. The rice should be cooked, but still have a bit of a bite to it, not be soft and mushy.  If you need to add more liquid, add a 1/4 cup of water or seafood stock. If the rice from the bottom of the pan is a little bit burnt, even better.

11.  Remove the paellera from the oven, and allow to sit, covered, on top of the stove for about ten minutes to rest.  When you’re ready to serve, squeeze some lemon juice around the surface, or serve with lemon wedges for your guests to put on themselves.

Bon profit!

Arros NegreThe black rice, cooking away on top of the stove.


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